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Bespoken Word: Is gravel the ‘safe space’ of cycling?

Mildred Locke gravel cycling
(Image credit: Phil Hall)

Gravel, adventure biking, all-roading; whatever you want to call it. Meandering on- and off-road on a drop-bar bike that’s somewhere between traditional racer and mountain bike is the fastest-growing and most fashionable segment of cycling right now. So why has something that’s been going on in the background since the first velocipedes got scooted along early 19th-century lanes suddenly become the hot ticket and why is that such a good thing?

Cynics will always say ‘new’ trends in cycling are deliberately generated to drive sales and there’s no doubting that every brand has now jumped on the gravel bandwagon. The interesting thing is that there’s no still no defined version of what ‘gravel’ is. In fact, as the first line I wrote shows, it doesn’t even have a definite name. It can be a pro rider turning up to smash a race across Kansas on an aero bike with tri-bars. It can be a bunch of friends cruising aimlessly towards a sunset bivvy with a soundtrack of laughter and enamel-mug percussion. 

Turn up to a gravel event or browse a gravel forum and what you’ll often see is total confusion of bikes, clothing and priorities.

While the various tribes and factions of road and MTB are well-developed, there’s no dress code for ‘groad’. Bib shorts with cargo pockets or slightly less baggy baggies might be what populate the ‘gravel’ collections of clothing brands, but the truth is that nobody actually cares. Just wear and ride what’s comfy for the speed, distance or terrain you’re planning to cover. Or use those extra cargo points and bags to take whatever you might need if you’ve no fixed plan at all.

The bikes being used are often still a run-what-you-brung mix of bikes from mountain to cyclo-cross, stripped for speed or loaded with every bag and bottle imaginable for just a 30km route. That’s not a judgement, by the way, just an observation, because if you want to make that 30km last all day, or even two then good on you, you’re maximizing the memories per meter. 

Even ‘dedicated’ gravel bikes are, by definition, a wonderfully liberating compromise. Because they’re not as capable off-road as MTBs there’s no pressure to send drops or schralp turns and if you want to push up a hill and appreciate the view that’s totally fine. Fatter, rumbling tires and a route that stitches together asphalt and trail are a get-out-of-jail-free card from constant Strava comparisons. While gravel biking obviously isn’t totally risk-free, getting tangled up in a rut generally has different consequences to getting a backflip or road gap wrong and we’ve yet to see a ‘punishment pass’ video featuring a tractor on a farm track. Alternatively, if you’ve got the skills to go scalping mountain bikes on red routes or liven up your local chain gang by straight-lining grassy roundabouts, then fill your ‘stiff enough for pedaling but comfortable to walk in’ boots.

Mildred Locke reckons gravel is a good gateway for roadies who want to explore off-road (Image credit: Phil Hall)

Chatting to Mildred Locke, who’s just joined our team at Cyclingnews, confirms that the accessibility, eclectic, expectation-free inclusivity and liberating potential of gravel is what makes it so welcoming:

"From a personal perspective, I suppose I'm drawn to gravel because I love going off-road, but I'm not the world's most confident mountain biker, so gravel is a happy medium for me. I also think for many roadies it's a good way to ease into off-roading when MTB seems too scary or hardcore. At least, that's the impression I've gotten from some people.

“I suppose the appeal of gravel — and the gravel bike — is that you get the thrills of off-road riding, exploring byways and lanes that your road bike can't handle, but there's no expectation to throw yourself down something too technical. Plus if you're of the long-distance-overnight-bivvy persuasion, like I am, then a gravel bike feels a lot more efficient than a mountain bike, and helps you cover more ground before nightfall.”

Mildred Locke gravel cycling

Gravel affords some exploration without the pressure of rolling over anything too technical (Image credit: Phil Hall)

While it’s great for riders who are in it for the experience and not the equipment, the number of ‘what tires for’ questions on gravel forums confirm it’s just as sticky for gear geeks. Their appetite for ‘didn’t we do this thirty years ago’ tiny-travel or rubber-band linkage forks, wobbly stems and relabelled/reborn 29er tires and rims that are now too skinny even for XC MTB's has been a gift for bike and component ‘designers’ too. In the same way that fashionable drinkers can’t get enough of craft beers from hipster micro breweries, the broad canvas of gravel bikes gives artisan bike builders huge scope for individuality where a fancy rack or hand-filed lug matters more than minimal grams or maximum suspension control so everyone is happy.

It’s not just a wide span of riders and manufacturers that are learning to love gravel either, it’s a wonderful product for selling cycling. It’s young, it’s free, it works with all sexes, shapes and sizes. Its image thrives on nature, exploration, sunsets, campfires and ‘finding yourself with your friends’. Yep that’s right, all the tick-box themes that every car, beer, holiday, dating site or incontinence pad ad tries to cram in.

Because it doesn’t encourage excessive speeds that invite injuries or clog up roads but still builds a hearty appetite and serious thirst, gravel biking is a great crop for local tourist boards to harvest. You don’t need mountains to play with either. In fact, creating the feel of wilderness out of a metropolis that puts millions of potential riders within easy reach, is why Cycling UK’s recent King Alfred’s Way route launch has been such a massive success, not to mention the discipline's meteoric rise in the US. The hundreds of participants rolling up to the start-lines of gravel races from Unbound Gravel and Rebecca's Private Idaho, to the Mid South are a testament to that.

So while ‘gravel’ might just be a mix of old-school mountain biking, touring, pass-storming, rough-stuffing, or the age-old joy of going for a random meander on your bike dressed up in the emperor's new flannels, that’s absolutely fine with me. Because what cycling needs in order to grow in a stressful, threatening and demanding world, is to offer a welcoming, non-judgemental, you-be-you ‘safe space’ for as many people as possible.

Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).